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Disclaimers & Conflicts of Interest 101

This page addresses the question of whether, when and how a blogger should disclose personal biases/relationships that might compromise his or her objectivity in reviewing creative works. (See this disclaimer).

4 Tips for Handling Disclaimers & Literary Conflicts of Interest

  1. (Recommended)In the first or second sentence, the reviewer or blogger should include a parenthetical statement with a link to the disclaimer. This link should take the reader to a disclaimer at the bottom of the article which goes into detail about the nature of the personal connection. One sentence should suffice. This method allows the reader to see that there is a personal connection without calling undue attention to it.
  2. (Alternative) A critic can start a piece with an italicized preface–usually in first person– to mention personal connections or a anecdote with the artist, perhaps some charming detail about a first encounter. In the main body the critic can write in a more objective and judgmental manner. Alternatively, the two pieces can exist as separate articles on the same page. Richard Schickel, for example, will frequently write reviews of movies and feature stories about the filmmaker and include them on the same page. The feature story can be looser and more personal, while the review can be more formal.
  3. (Another alternative): The review can write a first person “critical reaction” to a work, a sort of formless reader-response to the work. That way, the reader knows that the essay is not strictly critical but more a statement of the critic’s relation to the text as seen through the prism of personal biography. Nicholson Baker’s U and I is the best example of what I mean, although a reader response certainly doesn’t need to be this exhaustive.
  4. Pseudonymous self-reviewing of one’s own works should err on the side of meanness. (more).

Discussion: After a rather interesting but pointless web argument about whether blogger Maud Newton should have disclosed her personal relationship with a writer she was publicizing in her blog, I feel compelled to write up a guide to address these concerns.

First, about the Maud Newton brouhaha. Don’t read the above link; just scan it to see how much bloviating was done over nothing. Almost everybody had good points to make and were reasonably civil to one another, and even the main complainant wasn’t accusing the blogger of high crimes, merely suggesting that the disclosure should have been mentioned more prominently. Even Maud, ( that conniving culprit caught red handed for having the gall to promote a friend!) was correct in pointing out that she wasn’t trying to write criticism, just feature a writer she respected. That is after all, what bloggers do. Sam Munson (the complainant) said these disclosures needed to be made at the top of the post. Tweedledee, tweedledum.

First, let me acknowledge that failure to disclose conflicts of interest can be a serious problem, especially with a big media corporation that stands directly to benefit from promoting a work by one of its subsidiaries. CNN should not be having news stories by Brittany Spears; Time Magazine should be required to include a disclaimer in any story about mp3/piracy that Time/Warner stands directly to derive enormous financial benefit by inciting fear, uncertainty and dread in the hearts of teen downloaders.

That is not what we’re talking about here. Here we are talking about two people who are basically unknown outside of esoteric blogging circles and not backed by a megacorporation’s media megaphone. The questions raised here are: how fully and prominently should a writer disclose his or her relationship/connection with the content creator? Does this relationship/connection compromise the blogger’s or reviewer’s opinion and integrity? And is the reader hurt when a reviewer lets “personal biases” interfere with what he or she chooses to write about?

No literary critic can read everything, no music critic can hear everything, and no art or film critic can see everything. With fewer readers and less time to read, literary critics are coming in contact with a diminishing number of works. Despite the complaints about lowering standards, any given time period is apt to offer an abundance of high quality literature which no single critic is capable of digesting.

A critic has two duties to perform: publicize and filter. Because there are many competing standards for literary quality, and because a critic can be impatient about a work of unknown quality, critical assessments frequently miss things of value. Even the best reviewer or editor can miss something great or important about a work because of lack of time, perserverence or simply failure to recognize what makes a particular work interesting or innovative. One occasionally hears about pranksters who submit obscure stories by Hawthorne or poems by Shakespeare to litmags only to have them rejected soundly, and most critical introductions to newly branded classics delight in quoting dismissive reviews by critics now long since forgotten. Initial readers, aware that history might shout their assessments down, offer cautious opinions, preferring to give works the benefit of the doubt or treating them with “benign neglect,” by simply ignoring them.

One is tempted to describe this kind of critic as second-rate or amateurish, but in fact many fine critics stick with analyzing works of the canon and ignoring the truly revolutionary. (And it must be admitted that certain writers delight in pissing off readers with conventional reading expectations). Familiarity with cultural references, engagement strategies and poetics of a text can make a critic more inclined to know how to read a literary work and how to extract meaning or enjoyment or a sense of the sublime. I never, for example, cared for Nabokov (except for Lolita), but David Lodge’s essay on Nabokov’s Pnin helped me to get what the book what striving to do and how one critic enjoyed it. There are many cases where readers may already know about a book or or poem but lack familiarity with the book’s aim or strategy to know why to read it. Often a few clues or signposts (ie., Joyce was mimicking the journey of Odysseus) can suffice. Experience with a stylistic or narrative quirk in a previous work can make it easier to tolerate it in a more recent work. One reason I’d want to preserve the sense of an Author is because we need a sense of familiarity about previous works in order to appreciate how this specific example succeeds or fails. We can recognize repetitions of certain themes and how they evolve over an author’s writing life. Just as the author’s style evolves, the reader’s sympathies for the author’s point of view can evolve as well. If I have read 10 other poems by Shakespeare, I am in a better position to appreciate the 11th (plus I have more practice in trying to do it). If I already enjoyed one story by an author, that inclines me to stick it out for the author’s latest story. Familiarity is a helpful precursor for literary enjoyment and understanding.

Now we come to the case of the poor critic whose friend has created a book or poem or painting or film or symphony. Chances are this friend is laboring in obscurity, and that the critic has a better idea of “what’s going on” in this friend’s work than a random critic. Making a disclosure is a good idea, but the problem is that the disclosure itself (especially if placed prominently in the review) calls into question the value of the review being written. Doing cheerleading for one’s friends might seem inappropriate, but the alternative of entrusting the job of criticism to a clueless and overworked critic seems even worse. More than anything, an unknown artist needs sympathetic critics to get the work out there in the public eye. Peers/friends and acquaintances are precisely the people to do this.

But doesn’t the reviewer compromise critical values? Isn’t the reviewer prejudiced towards giving a more favorable opinion than the work warrants? Even if this were so, I’m unsure whether the reader is hurt by undeserved praise or attention. Also, we need to distinguish between an “announcement” or feature story about the artist and criticial assessments of value. I can mention that Danielle Steele has a new book out, but that doesn’t imply that I think it’s great or worth reading.

The biggest danger (if you want to call it that) is the threat of reciprocity. (This also plays into blogging in general). If one blogger says wonderful things about another blogger and links frequently to this first blogger, the first blogger will eventually have to “acknowledge the peons” by throwing back a reciprocal hyperlink or two. It’s a little like “grade inflation.” This tendency toward reciprocation might result in all works being publicized, links galore and little filtering taking place. Yes, this is a danger, but it merely turns over the filtering duty to the reader. So what? If the goal of weblogging is simply to make readers aware of unknown things, there’s no harm in this. We can’t automatically assume that a  filtering weblog is better than a link-crazy weblog. The filtering weblog is the result of one person’s decision about what is valuable. It depends on exclusion. But I’m not sure that it’s that easy to pin down where quality resides in literary works. Experimental and subversive artistic efforts will probably not “float to the top” of a filtering weblog. They are more likely to appear in an “agnostic” weblog that refrains from passing immediate judgment on a work’s quality. After all, surfing through links is a relatively fast and easy task. Having 20 links a day instead of 8 to wade through is probably not going to slow the surfer down much and holds the possibility of striking gold. An agnostic blogger does not sacrifice much credibility by simply acknowledging something with a hyperlink.

The question about a reviewer’s credibility misunderstands the demands made upon a critic’s time. We have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of works begging for our attention. To write about a next door neighbor’s novel means losing the time to read the 15th century epic poem that had been sitting on his bookshelf for years. Choosing what to read and write about is not a task critics perform lightly. I could sit down and make a list of a thousand books I’d like to read, a few hundred books I’d like to review, a few dozen books I’d like to write critical essays about. Occasionally I’ll kick upstairs to my priority list a work by somebody I know personally, but if the work is not interesting or terrific, I won’t finish it, much less write about it. There is just not enough time.

Ultimately, if a critic spends too much time reviewing works of middling quality, his or her reviews will cease to be interesting anyway. And if a critic thinks a friend’s work is not interesting, he or should simply not write about it, citing a lack of time. When a critic is too close (such as when they are romantically involved or best of friends), the critic may in fact prefer not to review any of the friend’s works (out of fear of damaging the friendship). Actually though, the more common case is for the critic/friend to like the work and give reasons why he or she thinks that work is important, only to have the enthusiasm fall upon deaf ears. It is so rare for novelists to find fans in this day and age (or even readers) that perhaps any time a critic has a positive reaction to any work (by a friend or anyone else), it should be immediately noted and celebrated.

One problem with reviewing commercial works of fiction or film is that the critic can comment only on artistic value, not consumer value. In other words, a critic may think a DVD collection is good, but is it worth spending $150 on? That’s the crucial question for the audience–and one which the critic–who probably paid nothing for the review copy–is ill-equipped to answer. This problem becomes particularly acute if the critic makes additional money by selling review copies; there will be a builtin incentive to seek more expensive review copies over less expensive ones. In crude economic terms, the value to the consumer derives from the cost of purchasing the commercial product, minus the artistic benefit the consumer/reader derives from it. The critic’s privileged access to review copies causes discrepencies between the critic’s perception of value and the audience’s perception of value. (Fortunately, this discrepency mitigates over time as expensive DVD or videogames become cheaper or accessible via libraries). Economics affect reviewers in other ways. Most journals depend to varying degrees on advertising, and a newspaper or journal that refuses to review commercial works in favor of noncommercial works may find it difficult to find advertisers. When considering personal biases, keep in mind that commercial interests may also influence a critic’s judgement in a way not immediately apparent or beneficial to the audience. These sort of sticky situations and compromises occur; they are an inevitable fact of a critic’s life, and we should be thankful that critics don’t spend all their time trying to demonstrate their critical incorruptibility.

Finally there is the matter of pseudonymous reviews. An artist could write pseudonymous reviews of his or her own works. This actually does not seem as vile as it seems, and in fact a number of notable writers have resorted to this when their artistic creations fell on deaf ears. If a writer can write useful commentary on his or her own works, more power to him. (Indeed, as Kenneth Champeon recently pointed out, it is common for Japanese writers to compose Atogaki or “afterwards” to “to set forth (sometimes with remarkable honesty) the various flaws, fallacies, logical lapses, and factual lacunae in the book they’ve just written”). Although in Japan the writer composes his own atogaki, in fact this same feat could be performed by a pseudonymous critic (who may end up making overly harsh remarks to throw off suspicion). Some degree of pseudonymous self-promoting and self-analysis can in fact help the clueless reader/critic to get started. But a series of encomiums may backfire by convincing surfers that only idiots are reading this author.

Disclaimer: In fact, my main motive for writing this piece is to justify doing reviews of works by friends (and to hope they someday return the favor!).

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Ray Davis 10/1/2004, 5:05 pm

    Yes to all your suggestions. And what about the critic who seeks out an artist they admire and then ends up befriending them? Or the artist who seeks out a critic who wrote something particularly insightful? Does it make any sense at all to call either of these very desirable states “problems”?

    Most criticism (paid or unpaid) is sadly desultory, and cronyism is just one generator of the real problems: lack of attention to the work itself, close-mindedness to wider contexts, and simple dullness. Insisting that one’s artistic enthusiasms somehow be thoroughly sealed off from the rest of one’s existence doesn’t seem likely to liven up the party.

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